Category Archives: Byron

Hillary and Trump beneath the Upas tree

The prolificly-mischievous George Steevens perpetrated one of his literary hoaxes, allegedly translated from the diary of a Dr Foersch, a (fictitious) Dutch surgeon, in Java. He invented  the upas-tree:

Erasmus Darwin, physician and scholar, a figure of some standing in botanical science and the author of several botanical works including The Loves of the Plants (1789), was another of Steevens’s victims. The London Magazine for December 1783 (pp. 511–17) carried Steevens’s description of the upas tree of Java which could kill all life within a distance of 15 to 18 miles, his source being an entirely fictitious Dutch traveller. Darwin was taken in and admitted the upas tree into his Loves of the Plants, from which Coleridge derived information…

That from the Dictionary of National Biography.

Once invented, the upas-tree had a life of its own, and became a metaphor for deadly power and influence. Southey had it, perhaps as the first, as the punch-line of Thalaba the Destroyer:

Enough the Island crimes had cried to Heaven,
The measure of their guilt was full,
The hour of wrath was come.
The poison burst the bowl,
It fell upon the earth.
The Sorceress shrieked and caught Mohareb’s robe
And called the whirlwind and away!
For lo! from that accursed venom springs,
The Upas Tree of Death.

Byron reckoned that Thalaba the Destroyer was one of Southey’sunsaleables, but that didn’t get in the way of borrowing the Southey reference in Childe Harold, Canto the Fourth (verse CXXVI):

Our life is a false nature — ’tis not in
The harmony of things, — this hard decree,
This uneradicable taint of sin,
This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree,
Whose root is earth, whose leaves and branches be
The skies which rain their plagues on men like dew —
Disease, death, bondage, all the woes we see —
And worse, the woes we see not — which throb through
The immedicable soul, with heart-aches ever new.

Our modern Upas

… is the toxic media.

  • We have it in the tabloid press (the British version might seem uniquely venomous, but — sadly — not).
  • We have in the shrill populist excess that is Fox News.
  • We have it, in excelsis, in the vowel evacuations of the shock-jocks.
  • Above all, it is the proliferation of web-sites and social media even further beyond the pale than Breitbart.

In this dispensation, anything short of vitriol is soft-soap.

How many times in recent weeks have we encountered hand-wringing despair such as this from Paul Waugh:

No one is pretending that either Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are perfect or all-wise, far from it. As the two candidates with the most negative poll ratings in history, the voters seem to be choosing which is their least worst option, via the least worst form of government. Here’s just one example: Trump’s repeated lies are well documented (a Newsweek reporter last night tweeted 100 of his worst ones, from business to politics to even fibbing about his golf score). And yet he polls ahead of Clinton for honesty. For many voters, their loathing of Hillary outweighs their distaste for Trump.

Today’s edition of The Guardian was a fine effort, with several articles of enduring worth. For now, I’ll stick with the First Leader:

… the only alternative to Mrs Clinton is Donald Trump. It needs to be said again, at this fateful moment, that Mr Trump is not a fit and proper person for the presidency. He is an irascible egomaniac. He is uninterested in the world. He has fought a campaign of abuse and nastiness, riddled with racism and misogyny. He offers slogans, not a programme. He propagates lies, ignorance and prejudice. He brings no sensibility to the contest except boundless self-admiration. He panders to everything that is worst in human nature and spurns all that is best.

Fear and Loathing revisited

Beyond the valid charges made by The Guardian, Trump is a prime example of a media creation, a thing spawned by his own monomania. Hillary Clinton is a lawyer and a politician.

And therein lies the difference.

Clinton still works within accepted patterns, professional disciplines, of behaviour. When use of a private email is a crime, we are all guilty. Every one — especially a successful, practising political operator — has their “private channels”.

Trump, though, is a fraud, a bully, a liar.

He is poison.

But he survives this far by anti-toxin imbibed from long sojourn under the Breitbart/Fox upas tree.

So I am reminded of the fable Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin generated from the upas tree:

Deep in the desert’s misery,
far in the fury of the sand,
there stands the awesome Upas Tree
lone watchman of a lifeless land.

The wilderness, a world of thirst,
in wrath engendered it and filled
its every root, every accursed
grey leafstalk with a sap that killed.

The king sends a slave to collect the poison:

He brought the deadly gum; with it
he brought some leaves, a withered bough,
while rivulets of icy sweat
ran slowly down his livid brow.

And, mission accomplished, the slave expires.

The king now uses the poison:

The king, he soaked his arrows true
in poison, and beyond the plains
dispatched those messengers and slew
his neighbors in their own domains.

If Trump beats the odds, he too is capable of such savagery.

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By Bonnivard!

There was a time when we well-eddikated chaps found this stuff brought up with the pay-and-rations. Obviously, something here passed me by, or the brain-cells are popping bulbs faster than I thought.

There was I, as one does, idly leafing through Byron, and stopped off at Chillon.

Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty, thou art;–
For there thy habitation is the heart,–
The heart which love of thee alone can bind;
And when thy sons to fetters are consigned,
To fetters, and the damp vault’s dayless gloom,
Their country conquers with their martyrdom,
And Freedom’s fame finds wings on every wind.
Chillon! thy prison is a holy place,
And thy sad floor an altar, for ’twas trod,
Until his very steps have left a trace,
Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,
By Bonnivard! May none those marks efface!
For they appeal from tyranny to God.

Georgie-Porgie Gordon could crank out that stuff by the quire. I cannot enumerate the times I’ve skimmed that sonnet over the years, without a pause for thought. Similarly, at some stage I must have taken time out with The Prisoner of Chillon, which ought to have clarified my moment of mystification.

Essentially (and I can’t claim it all floods back to me), the castle had outlived its primary function as a point at which travellers heading for the Great Saint Bernard could be … err … fleeced. Small tricks like that kept the Counts of Savoy flush in Emmental and brandy. After a spell as a summer home for the Savoys, it became — as many of these joints did — a gaol.

Shoving inconvenient clerics, of the other faith (and there always was another faith), into chokey became an international sport. After all, some storage was required while Sire decided whether we needed a burning.

A Prior engagement

Which brings us to François Bonivard (or, as Byron has him, “Bonnivard”). He was a hereditary (i.e. he inherited from his uncle) prior of St Victor, just outside the walls of Geneva. Our Frankie was a merry monk, who preferred the pleasures of the flesh to the calls of mother church. Then fate came visiting him.

These being the years of the Wars of Religion, anyone and everyone had to take sides. Bonivard leaned to the reformers. Anyone going that way might easily offend a feudal lord of the other persuasion. The local Big Cheese was Charles III, Duke of Savoy, who readily hoovered up all the readies of those of the other persuasion. All that was left of the Bonivard patrimony was that one priory.

So François threw his lot (and there wasn’t much left) with the rebels. Which in turn meant he had to do a sudden bunk when the Savoyards came looking for him. He was betrayed by those he thought “mates”, one of whom (Abbot Brisset) snaffled his personal priory, and he spent a couple of years in Savoy’s Grolée clink at Lyon.

The table turns: Brisset ate something that terminally disagreed with him, Bonivard “escaped” from his prison, and made it back to claim his priory. All’s well that ends well?

As if. Bonivard went off for a weekend (dirty or not, but he had the beginnings of a reputation) at scenic Moudon, and found himself again in the clutches of the Savoyards, this time consigned to the Castle of Chillon — so we get there eventually — and was incarcerated there for the next six years.

Quality? Nah! Feel the width!

His release came when the burgeoning power of the city-state of Bern took over the Vaud. His priory was a rubble heap, and he was definitely out-of-funds. But Bonivard was instantly a national hero and a fire-brand: Geneva awarded him a pension, and a salaried place on the management committee.

He had also lost any pretentions to monkish celibacy, but a recognition of how to finance a rather rackety lifestyle — marrying a succession of well-off widows, until he arrived (#4) at a defrocked — in any sense — nun (she ended badly, drowned for immorality in the Rhône, with her inamorato beheaded).

Doubtless with a resigned sigh, Bonivard now devoted his declining years — until his death in 1570, aded 77 — to compiling the Chronicles of Geneva, and some other works, none of which need to detain us on any grounds of literary merit.

You need a good spin-doctor, my friend …

… allow me to introduce the sixth Baron Byron.

I seriously doubt Bonivard would have any significance had it not been for the romanticising he got at the hands of Byron.

Like any starry-eyed undergraduate, I fell for his mad, bad and dangerous-to-know attractions. When I woke the morning-after, I realised the language was superb, but any political or social thought was pretty jejune.

Which is all pretty well summed up by that slogan, worthy of any MadMen:

Freedom’s fame finds wings on every wind.

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